Hands on the Android

This review is about Android, the operating system, and not about any particular handset. I remember the first time I got my hands on the Android when @elusivejackal picked up a development unit late last year. I played with it for about 30 minutes and left with the feeling that it was a really solid operating system. Rogers, Canada’s only GSM provider, launched both the HTC Magic and HTC Dream a few weeks ago and I finally bit the bullet to pick up an Android device for myself.

Playing with the Android, Google seems to be taking a hybrid approach and picking up the best and worst of what has been done on the iPhone and Windows Mobile platforms to date. The Android’s native home screen looks like the iPhone. It breaks it up into 3 panels and you can add more apps by swiping up the menu screen from the bottom and adding them to any of the home panels. An additional thing you can do is to add widgets to the home panel which is useful. The panels are finger friendly where you can swipe up (to see all the apps you have installed), down (sees all the system notifications), left and right (to move between panels).

As soon as you turn on the phone, it asks you for your Google credentials which makes sense. It is a Google Phone after all. By default, the phone will synchronize with Gmail, Calendar, Google Talk and Contacts. It will also activate your Latitude if you choose to do so when you run Google Maps on the Android. However, you have to re-enter your Google credentials for any third-party apps you use on the Android. I would have hoped that it would ask me for confirmation if I wanted to re-use my Google credentials. Hopefully this will change as I think that tight integration with Google is one of the most attractive features with the Android.

Android, like the iPhone, has its own centralized application repository which they call Marketplace. You can do keyword searches to narrow down the application list. Once you click on the app, you get to see all the reviews, see other apps the developer has published for the Android and even email the application developer directly. One thing which I do like about the Android is that it gives you the ability to install apps even outside of the Marketplace. You have to check it off in the phone settings and be able to find an app to install. A prime example of such use is Brightkite. One thing I didn’t like about the Marketplace is that it didn’t alert you when an app was updated. The application developer has to build the capability into the app or you have to stumble upon an update by searching for it in the marketplace.

The performance on the GPS is phenomenally fast and accurate. One of the things that I like about it is how the GPS is abstracted that multiple apps can access the information without causing a conflict. For instance, I can publish my location on BrightKite while Google Maps is running.bWindows Mobile actually attempts to do this but unfortunately most developers bypass the generic GPS driver which provides the same abstraction layer concept because of performance issues.

Once you get out of the “pretty” and look at the guts of the Android, as a developer, you can quickly see how much of it is Java and Linux. When I was setting up the Dream for my mum, I deleted something I shouldn’t have causing the phone to crash a lot. The only way I could recover from it was to hard reset the phone. The best way to uninstall anything really would be to go through the marketplace. The nice thing however is that it is really easy to install apps even though they aren’t necessarily in the marketplace.

Overall, the Android shows a lot of promise but still lacks the polish of Windows Mobile. If Android can capture the heart and minds of the developer community, it will turn out to be a very solid product. Already HTC has developed a new UI with the Sense and it looks promising.

Sometimes Complicated is Easier

Mama Kang seems to be inspiring a lot of my blog entries lately. As a was writing my previous blog entry, I came to a really personal realization and there’s no other way to describe it as an Apple moment three years too late. First off, let me describe Mama Kang a little bit more. The Kang family in general are a bunch of technophiles. We’ve long been exposed to computers even in our early childhood which is rare from a generation perspective and from the fact that we were born in a third-world country. We’re comfortable with trying anything new. Let’s just say that even at my age, I get tech hand-me-downs from my dad and not the other way around. In fact, Papa Kang is totally comfortable with the idea of having a PS3 as a mumtimedia centre because it’s cheaper than to build one. The exception to that rule is my mum. For the most part, mum is more than happy to hand off anything remotely technical to my dad.

Off late, I’ve been getting Mama Kang to use Twitter more. Not because she wants to but because it makes life easier for the rest of the family. The first thing after setting up her Twitter account, I installed Tweetdeck because there is no way that mum would know how to get to the Twitter page. Yes, that’s how mum works. I quickly realized at that point that mum isn’t in front of her computer much and isn’t apt to check Twitter. However, she’s more than happy to use her phone.

I was quite happy for mum when they reinstated SMS for Twitter in Canada and I quickly set up her phone. Funny thing is mum has never sent text messages before this and she didn’t even know how to get to the message function on her Sony Ericsson W810. After showing her how to use the messaging function and T9, she was ironically blocked by the fact that there was no easy way for her to get to the @ sign. Previous posts from mum typically resulted in random broadcast messages that you’d have to know her to understand who she was referring to.

My solution – purchase @elusivejackal’s T-Mobile G1. I have to admit that the initial introduction didn’t go as well as planned. Largely because it was two brand new paradigms for her – touchscreen and slideout full keyboard. Once she got that, it was really smooth sailing. It was, however, really amusing to watch her press the touchscreen really hard. Hopefully the phone lasts through that abuse.

A couple of things blew my mind. I have to admit that I half expected the experiment to fail. My use of a smartphone is really complex as I use my phone for most things such as communicating (IM, phone, email, twitter), blogging, life management (contact, tasks, calendar), finance tracking, reading, looking up info and lots of things I’m sure I don’t realize that I use it for. In all of the complexity of my use, the one thing that they have really done well with Windows Mobile, Android and the iPhone is that all of them have done a great job in making the phone extremely user friendly. For mum, she found the Android to be significantly easier to use than the Sony Ericsson W810. Once everything was setup, mum found the touch screen intuitive to use. With the slideout keyboard, it was a lot easier to send text messages than a regular T9 keyboard. She loves the new phone and I’ve been receiving lots of Twitter messages since she got her new phone.

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Twitter SMS is so much better than regular SMS

It’s true what they say – it’s hard to miss what you never had. For the longest time, Canada was bereft of Twitter over SMS. I never once thought about it impacting me since in my mind, I would always use an app like PockeTwit or Twikini. Even after my carrier got the ability to use Twitter over SMS, I was a bit non-chalant about it. It took me almost a week for Twitter to get its kinks out of the way but finally it worked.

For me, the primary magic really was getting Mama Kang on Twitter. I have mum set up on Tweetdeck at home but my mum would rarely log on to it. I quickly realized that the best way to do this was to get it to work over SMS for mum. Mum is very much a technophobe choosing not to use tech because she doesn’t have to. Once she was introduced to Twitter SMS, she got used to the idea of checking and sending text messages. One slight problem – mum could not figure out how to get to the @ sign from her SE W810. I eventually got her a used T-Mobile G1 from @elusivejackal. I was surprised how quickly she got used to the idea of using the smartphone but more on that on another post. Mum now constantly DMs me and it’s great.

Here’s why Twitter SMS is better than regular SMS. For me, it’s because it gives me a much wider reach of friends and family. SMS is the bridge for people who aren’t incline to be on their computer all the time or have a smartphone but whom I want to stay connected with and hopefully they with me.

Another great side effect of having Twitter SMS. While I’m more than happy to be on my mobile device all day long, I tend not to be. When I’m home, I tend to leave my primary phone (tgrmobile) on my home office desk. Cool thing is that I have access to my DMs through other devices scattered around the house.

So my new take on Twitter SMS is that it’s probably the most effective technology to bridge the technophiles and technophobes.

Twikini – Initial Review

I finally bit the bullet and upgraded my phone OS to Windows Mobile 6.5 and my initial reaction is more phew than anything else. Upgrading to a non-official ROM always comes with tonnes of risk. One major by product of upgrading to this particular ROM is that my favourite WinMo Twitter app doesn’t work yet on .NET CF 3.7. After reading some intial reviews, I decided to give Twikini a try.

Screenshot

Twikini provides all of the basic features of Twitter such as reply and re-tweeting. It also allows you to shorten URLs and post pics and separates between your friends’ stream, replies and direct messages. One interesting feature is that it can automatically tweet whatever music or song you’re listening to on your Windows Mobile device. One nice thing about it is that it’s not written in .NET which translates to running pretty quickly on your mobile device. Twikini is a rather simple app which is both its strength and its weakness. It all really depends on who is the user of the app. For instance, I think it’s a fabulous app if you’re just monitoring your stream of friends. It’s simple to use and focuses on the core functions such as tweeting, replies, re-tweeting and favouriting a tweet. There is very little getting used to as it keeps the Windows Mobile paradigm of smart buttons. If you need more advanced features like groups or posting from multiple services (for me, it’s ping.fm) then Twikini isn’t there yet.

Some of the immediate shortcomings of Twikini that they should be able to fix with relative ease is giving users the ability to follow another user and give users a count of new messages based on friends stream, replies and direct messages. One of the question marks will be if the simplicity and speed will entice end users to pay $5.95 when they can get PockeTwit for free.

Basics of the Smartphone

One of the most frustrating conversations to have is the one where it starts off as “Windows Mobile sucks” or “iPhone sucks” because most people don’t really spend the time to understand the smartphone. Hopefully this post will help people in two areas – better understanding of the device and help them select a device that best suit their needs. There are 4 basic things to think about when it comes to a smartphone – the operating system, the manufacturer, the service provider and the user community. All 4 play a very big part on how the final user experience turns out.

The operating system
So today you’ll hear people talk about buying a Windows Mobile phone, iPhone, Android phone or Blackberry Phone. These terms actually represent the OS. The one OS that you don’t hear about much is the Symbian 60 but it is always associated with Nokias. The most well known S60 device that is used as a smartphone today is the Nokia E71.

The manufacturers
Nokia, RIM and Apple develop their own hardware which they put on the Symbian 60, Blackberry and iPhone OS on respectively. In theory, it gives them an advantage because they have full control over the hardware and software before launch and hence giving them more stability. This is not always the case unfortunately.

In the case of Windows Mobile and Android, OS are shipped to the manufacturer. The bigger brands in the Windows Mobile space are HTC, Samsung, Acer, Asus, Toshiba and HP. Since 2005, there are over 100 Windows Mobile models out there today although HTC devices are the most widely recognized. Each of these manufacturers are then responsible for developing drivers and ensuring capability of each model released. Each vendor also bundles software both home-grown (or proprietary) and commercial for branding and value purposes. Each vendor then is responsible for the stability of the product at that level.

Another thing to note is that while there are many models that have physical similarities, there are 2 major technology in terms of mobile phone technologies which are GSM and CDMA. Traditionally GSM is associated with its SIM based cards. However that trend is slowly changing with the emergence of WCDMA.

The service provider
Most service providers offer either GSM or CDMA service. Depending on your preference or requirement, this could be a limiting factor of which provider you choose. On top of the manufacturer’s bundle, the service provider adds another layer of bloat because of branding purposes. It is also usually up to the manufacturer to tweak the various phone configurations to ensure things like call clarity, internet thoroughput and consistency, dropped calls and various other features to make the phone work within the network.

The user community
The user community is an often discounted factor in purchasing a smartphone. My definition of a user community encompasses not just the consumers but also the developers and hackers that strive to make the product better where they can. An active user community always finds ways to better the experience by answering questions, finding work arounds and often developing solutions or patches to problems. In the HTC Windows Mobile family, the XDA Developers community creates new ROMS, patches software and even create neat utilities that make these devices more enjoyable to use. Often times, it will even go as far as extending the life of a particular product.

While the purpose of thid entry is to help others to think and pick a smartphone, one of the harsh realities of mobile devices is that the expectation of most people is that it just has to work. For example, if rebooting a device takes more than 30 seconds, it’s often not acceptable. People expect phones to be usable all the time. So far the brand that has been anle to do this the best has been Apple and it is shown by the continually rapid growth of their market of the smartphone market.

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Ride for Heart 2009 Synopsis

I wanted to quickly write a quick blog to thank everyone who sponsored me for the Ride for Heart. While I didn’t meet my goal, I did raise a decent amount of money for a cause that I think is fairly important. Ultimately, this really is a precursor to another ride that I’m very passionate about which is the Ride for Cancer. But more about that when the time comes. I was really touched by the generosity of my family, friends and co-workers. More importantly, I was really touched by donations from some of my Tweeps whom I’ve never met. Here are the list of my donors whom I’d like to thank for all of their generosity on helping work towards my goal: Angelo Berios, Arthur Bydon, Billy Monk, Bonnie Schnurr, Chai-Seng Kang, Danny Soo, Darren Phillipson, Gerry Power, Jason Kwong, Joanna So, Karen Kang, Karen Hong, Keran Singh, Kun On Ip, Michael Lee, Michelle Cerqua, Mui Chua, Nyla Ahmad, Pauline Chan, Roger Pazin, Sanaa Khatri, Saul Colt, Shirly Tran, Stefan Leyhane, Tanzeeb Khalili, Tony Lau, Tristan Cuschieri and Wai Yee Tin. Through the generosity of these folk, I was able to raise $1583. Yes, that’s a really bizarre number I know.

 
So a quick synopsis of the day itself for those interested in some details of the day. The day started out as a comedy of errors. It was definitely filled with both comedy and errors at various levels. Weather forecast all week had threatened to rain but you know what they say – it’s as unpredictable as the weather. I was hoping for at least a decent day for riding – one can always hope but on ride day, the clouds were dark and it was starting to spit rain. After some debate, I decided to run upstairs at the last minute to grab a towel and some extra clothing to change into. I actually enjoy riding in the rain but 3 hours is a long time to ride in the rain and definitely doesn’t do wonders for the car if I was sogging wet. Started to drive and as I was going through the mental checklist in my head, I quickly realized that I had left my registration sticker as I grabbed my extra clothes from upstairs. That, of course, impacted my timeline to pick up my good friend, Karen, who had agreed to ride with me that day. There’s a whole other story about Karen that we’ll get to later. So I was late getting Karen which also automatically meant that I would be late going to meet my cousin, Catherine. Once we got to the parking lot and grabbed the bikes, we realized that Karen needed the tires inflated on her bike… and she did not get her registration sticker before hand. So once we got to the registration desk, it was a mad scramble of getting Karen registered, her biked looked at and getting my cousin, Catherine. That didn’t take long. But in that kafufle, I realized that I had left my water bottle in the car. So that’s how the day began. It could have been ominous but it fortunately wasn’t.
 
It was actually pretty slow starting out of the gates. Not quite the experience I remembered from last year but the weather was really cool without the sun and without a lot of strong wind. I had expected there to be packs of people out of the gate but was fully expecting the pack to break up after ramp going from the Gardiner to the DVP. It usually breaks up there because a fair number of people would hesitate going fast and those of us who enjoy the speed would take the opportunity to break out from the crowd through either shoulder. This was not the case. We were stuck in the pack and did not find the opportunity to break out until slightly after. The DVP is probably one of the nicest places to ride for a bike with such nice and smooth roads that are windy and a decent balance of hills and valleys. It was hard not to break out into short sprints because it’s just so much fun but I would eventually wait up so that both Karen and Catherine would be able to catch up. Don’t get me wrong – they were never that far behind. On average they were usually only about 2 to 5 minutes behind at any given point. I know what it’s like to have to ride by yourself on this kinds of ride and it’s never as much fun as riding with the people you came with. All in all, the ride took us about 2 hours and 47 minutes. It’s about an hour longer than my ride last year with Kish but the good news is that I didn’t cramp at the end which is a bonus. Overall, I had a really good time riding. You could not have asked for better weather and there is no experience like riding your bike on the DVP.

 

Some special kudos to both my riding partners. Karen had never in her life ridden in a long ride before and she started out with a 50KM ride. I personally think it’s a huge accomplishment for her. She didn’t complain and as much as she threatened about pushing her bike up hills, she never once did that. She rode through some of the tougher uphill climbs. I’ve done a tonne of rides with Catherine before so it was no real surprise that she would be able to do the distance. But for a tiny thing, she did really well keeping up with me. Looking back she was always close enough that I could spot her and not worry that she’d be too far off. I enjoyed the chats with both my partners at different stages of the ride and all in all, it was loads of fun. For those interested in numbers – For the 25 KM I managed to get my bike computer working, The trip time was about 1 hours and 16 mins, average speed of 20.66 KM/H, Average cadence of 66 and Maximum speed of 54 KM/H. Really poor numbers but you can’t put the amount of fun in numbers ๐Ÿ˜€ For more pics on the Ride for Heart, you can find them on my facebook link.
 
While the Heart and Stroke Foundation cause is close to home, there’s nothing that hits closer to home than cancer especially for me. So next year, my plan is to do both the Ride for Heart and the Ride for Cancer. Most of my primary focus will go towards raising money for cancer as I believe it’s a $2000 minimum to raise money for that ride. I’ll go into the personal details when I start raising money for that ride.

Tasting Tour Toronto – Beta 2

I really wished I got around to writing about Tasting Tour sooner. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Beta 2 version of the concept last week and it was something I thoroughly enjoyed. The concept of Tasting Tour is the brainchild of Jaime Woo and Naomi The. Jaime led the tour I was on and described it as a food crawl. Given I’ve never had the opportunity to do a bar crawl, I personally compare it to a combination of a tasting menu and and walking tour. The basic idea of tasting tour is that you get to try a number of food venues in a few short hours.

The idea is great especially in a city like Toronto where there are many different ethnic areas and their associated food and there is a very rich variety of food types. For the consumer, it’s a great way to try new restaurants that you otherwise wouldn’t think of trying or sometimes even heard of. For the restaurants, it’s an easy way to market and fill up the restaurants on days that it otherwise wouldn’t be busy. All in all, it’s a win-win situation for both.

Outside of the people I met, the other highlight of my tasting tour was really the interesting information that I learned about the places I went. I like hearing stories about people or things. It provides context of the event. At Tasting Tour, the owner of both an art cafe and vegetarian restaurant talked about why and how they started their restaurants and also a bit about the food that they made. In my mind, it made us connect with the restaurants so much more. At a teahouse, we were given a really long overview of the different teas. It was not that different from a wine tour. It was fascinating from two aspects – there is so much to know about tea and that the people working there are passionate about the product. The end result – many of us ended up buying tea from them. The night came to a perfect end at a pub where the drinking happens.

Outside of the event itself, I am personally quite intrigued by the idea. It’s the first non-tech startup that I am actually quite interested in. While it may not make Jaime and Naomi fabulously wealthy, I think as an event it could be really successful. There are still a number of things for them to work out but it will be very interesting to see how they grow their idea while I quietly root for them.